Hope is a Revolutionary Patience
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: James 5:7-10
I used to hate the idea of original sin. The idea that we are born unclean, undeserving, inherently driven to bad behavior by our flesh and weak wills. At least that’s how I first learned about original sin. It was mostly about individual failings and our inability to overcome them. It’s a pretty cynical view of humanity actually: that we are basically born bad and that our faith calls us to spend our lives fighting that badness.
It’s also not theologically sound, at least not within our faith. This is what the very first chapter of the very first book in our Bible has to say about how we were made: Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” If we’re going to proceed logically with the idea of original sin as it engages with this scripture, which is foundational to our faith, we have two options: Either we believe that God is good, and if we’re made in God’s image, then we, too, are fundamentally good. Or, if we are born inherently sinful, then we must conclude that our God is also fundamentally sinful.
I don’t think our God is fundamentally sinful. Or mean. Or vengeful. Or cruel. I know some of our scriptures paint God as these things: like God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or the testing of Job, or the waves of torture in Revelation. But like I said last week, I think our biblical storytellers like to pin our human fallibility on God sometimes.
One of my favorite tv shows is The Expanse, and not just because they have a queer woman Christian pastor as a main character, but partially. She’s a Methodist minister flying through space, trying to help everyone make sense of a new frontier. She says that her father taught her that God gave us two texts: scripture and creation.
And when I look at God’s creation, I see God’s goodness. I see vast oceans and wild mountains formed by slow, undulating processes below the earth’s surface. I see sunrises and sunsets that have no practical reason to be as gorgeous as they are. I see the miracle of our bodies in their impossible complexity and beauty. In God’s creation, there is even goodness in what we sometimes consider violence. The food chain isn’t survival of the fittest, it’s a circle of creation. Life nourishing life. The earth nourishes us and when we die, we nourish the earth.
There is death and pain and suffering, but the vast majority of it is simply part of the vast dance of God’s creation.
Sin is a different thing. Sin is the willful pursuit of death and pain and suffering, usually the willful inflicting of those things on others. Sin is a choice. God made us good. God dropped us into the great dance of God’s beautiful creation and then left us free to choose. Sin lives in how we choose to interact with God’s creation. It is not original to that creation.
Where original sin does start to make sense to me, though, is when I look at how humans choose to organize themselves, usually according to who’s in and who’s out. The organization starts small: European colonists encountering dark-skinned people in Africa and deciding that they are inferior. But then it grows: inferiority becomes dehumanization that builds slavery as essential to their economic system. Then it gets embedded in the culture, so that even when slavery is abolished, its principles live on in laws and traditions and even how we unconsciously experience each other.
Where original sin makes sense to me is how humans choose to set themselves apart from God’s creation. At first, we took the stuff of this earth and we grew things and, yes, killed what we needed to survive. We lived within the balance of the dance. But then we started assigning a greater value to certain bits of God’s creation: gold, for example, or trees or oil. We built our systems around how we valued these things. We made gashes in the earth or mowed down ancient forests or drilled holes at the bottom of the ocean to get more of these things, ignoring the balance of the dance of God’s creation. We built our ways of moving and being around a resource that chokes the atmosphere, trapping warm air that very slowly makes our planet less habitable.
Original sin isn’t about our individual bodies, our individual lives, it’s about how all our choices add up to something destructive.
I’ll be honest: I feel hopeless sometimes. Maybe it sounds silly, but whenever I walk into Safeway or Target, I am overwhelmed by all the plastic packaging I see that I know will end up either in the ground or in the ocean, eventually in the bellies of birds and fish. It all seems so enormous and impossible.
But whenever something seems enormous and impossible, God sends me a reminder, sometimes from a part of scripture I tend to overlook. This time, it came from the letter of James:
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
I don’t like this advice. I want things to be different now. I want justice and reparations for my Black siblings now. I want to change the way we live to honor and protect all of God’s creation now. I am not patient.
But I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and something she wrote stuck with me. Quoting a pastor friend of hers, she says, “Hope is a revolutionary patience.”
Hope is a revolutionary patience. Hope is a way of being within a world that is not yet what we want it to be. We don’t need hope when everything is going the way we want it to. We won’t need hope when we’re finally fully loving and caring for all our neighbors. We won’t need hope when the way we live doesn’t come at the expense of the planet we live on.
But for now, we need hope which is revolutionary patience.
I think the revolutionary part means trusting in our goodness. Trusting in God’s image that is reflected in ourselves. Trusting in God’s image that is reflected in everyone. In this cynical world that would have us believe that every cell of our body is built upon sin, and our life’s work is resisting that sin, it is revolutionary to believe in our goodness, to look at another person and believe in their goodness. And then acting on that belief. Acting as if you know you are made in God’s image, as if you know everyone around you is made in God’s image.
Original sin does not live inside us, it is born through our choices. The great sins of our world were created choice by choice by choice. Which means our choices matter, which means when we choose to act from God’s goodness in ourselves and others, we remake the world. Slowly. The way the world fell into hate and greed and destruction is the same way we rebuild it as the Kingdom of God.
That is revolutionary patience, which is hope. Revolutionary patience is the practice of Advent. Every year, we prepare for the coming of Jesus. Wait, Advent teaches us. Act as if this world can be rebuilt. And let every choice you make prepare the way.